Liberal Education

Bequeathing a Legacy for a Just and Inclusive Democracy

EDITOR’S NOTE: After twenty-nine years of service, Carol Geary Schneider retired from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) on June 30, 2016. Carol came to the association from the University of Chicago in 1987 and, as vice president, led several major AAC&U initiatives, including Engaging Cultural Legacies, Re-Forming Arts and Sciences Majors, and American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning. She was appointed president in 1998. As president, Carol presided over an especially successful and consequential period in the association’s hundred-year history. The membership doubled, from 678 in 1998 to more than 1,350 in 2016; inclusive excellence was elevated to a mission-level commitment; and a robust vision for liberal education in the twenty-first century was developed and promoted through several major initiatives. In 2005, anticipating AAC&U’s centennial in 2015, Carol led the creation of the wide-ranging Liberal Education and America’s Promise initiative, which brings together several coordinated efforts to enact the association’s integrative vision for the renewal of undergraduate education and a vigorous public advocacy effort to build consensus on essential learning outcomes among educators, scholars, employers, accreditors, leaders of state systems, and members of the general public.

To mark Carol’s retirement, we invited four of her close collaborators to reflect on various aspects of her legacy for the association and, more broadly, for American higher education. The brief essays printed here begin to sketch the contours of that legacy, celebrating Carol’s ongoing work to ensure that liberal education is available to all students.


When I first met Carol Geary Schneider in 1988 while I was heading the National Women’s Studies Association, she had invited a women’s studies task force to be part of an ambitious, complicated project on the organizing principles of the major. With her characteristic IMAX vision, she was orchestrating twelve disciplinary society task forces and a national advisory board in a three-year project that spawned fourteen publications, all done while balancing the somewhat differential interests of two separate funding sources. It should have been a clue to what lay ahead when she hired me in 1992 as a senior director of what turned out to be an even more expansive initiative that spanned ten years instead of three: American Commitments: Diversity, Democracy, and Liberal Learning.

If the project on the major was about designing a logical and robust intellectual beginning, middle, and end to a student’s major, American Commitments asked for what purpose. It explored the fundamental aims of higher education in a diverse yet persistently unequal US democracy and defined what was needed to foster “social learning about United States diversity in relation to the nation’s democratic aspirations and values.”1 By pairing diversity and democracy, Carol sparked a dramatic new direction for the association and further expanded the horizon of the diversity movement that had been transforming higher education in the preceding decades. Her evolution as a champion of democratic engagement across differences to create a world lived in common took root and was about to turn into a massive national forest.

The program officer of her key funding source for American Commitments, Edgar Beckham of the Ford Foundation, was her influential and intellectual partner in this new democratic initiative. He challenged and cajoled all with whom he engaged to take risks, widen the circle of perspectives and players, keep education at the center, and dive deep into unfamiliar knowledge that questioned complacent assumptions. As Edgar once put it in a speech, “Like everyone else associated with AAC&U, I consider myself an advocate of liberal education, and for me the function of liberal education is to liberate. To liberate us all from both oppression and privilege, from unexamined assumptions, from passivity in the living of our lives, from ignorance of ourselves and others; to free us for the pursuit of a world lived in common. Our diversity is our pathway to liberation.”2

The other powerful influence on Carol in American Commitments was the national panel that guided the initiative, mapped and wrote the three conceptual papers that shaped it, and offered recommendations for campus practice. In what was to be a defining choice, Carol selected panel members who collectively decentered the usual dominant patterns of influence. She sought distinguished academic leaders, scholars, and practitioners who would bring diverse perspectives and experiences, deep knowledge about diversity and democracy, and divergent disciplinary and positional frameworks. For this project on American pluralism and US democracy, the national panel included nine people of color and seven white people, eight women and eight men, and identities that spanned differing religions, ethnicities, class backgrounds, and sexual orientations. What we had in common was our commitment to listen to, and learn from, one another across our differences. It was transformative to a person.

We began by telling our stories to one another as part of trying to live what we were determined to explore. We speculated about what now may be possible in colleges and universities that had abandoned racial apartheid practices and sex segregation and were more inclusive than ever before. How could such rich diversity affect learning and the preparedness of graduates to enact the aspirations of a just and equitable democracy? We did our intellectual and professional work on the national panel not in spite of our differences, but through them. Or in Carol’s own words from the foreword to The Drama of Diversity and Democracy, “Panel members brought their own diversities . . . not as suppressed background but as the context for everything they know and value and work for as leaders in higher education.”3

The scope of the American Commitments initiative was vintage Schneider: ambitious, forever evolving, and anchored in a recast definition of liberal education. In her own words, American Commitments sought “both to describe the knowledge participants need in this diverse democracy and to identify effective ways of fostering this learning in goals for liberal education and the curriculum, in institutional life and campus ethos, and in the classroom practices that comprise teaching and learning.”4 The initiative produced three monographs; three generations of faculty and curriculum development institutes involving 130 different colleges and universities and nearly 700 faculty and academic administrators; a series of campus-community dialogues followed shortly after by community-campus dialogues called Racial Legacies and Learning; and DiversityWeb, one of the first digital portals to capture examples of the fast-growing diversity initiatives on campuses.

AAC&U also became a leader in Ford’s Public Information Project with national briefings, lessons on how campuses could tell their stories to a broader public, and the creation of a quarterly publication called Diversity Digest. Under Carol’s leadership, that publication has continued uninterrupted since 1995, even after outside funding for it had evaporated. It continues now as Diversity & Democracy. In the partnership with the Ford Foundation, AAC&U also began organizing annual diversity conferences for all the four hundred Ford Foundation–funded colleges and universities. Again, when funding ceased, Carol made sure to incorporate conferences on diversity and learning into AAC&U’s regular operating budget. These conferences continue today as “Diversity, Learning, and Student Success.”

When she became president of AAC&U in 1998, Carol turned her attention to new projects, but brought to them her accrued insights about the relation of diversity and democracy. In conceiving the Greater Expectations initiative, for example, she wanted to pose millennial questions about higher education, diversity, and democracy: How prepared is higher education now that a nation is coming to college? What needs to change to accommodate the new students who are more diverse than ever before but with vastly different preparation for college-level work? The most defining initiative for Carol as president was Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), launched in 2005 and still going strong. How she incorporated democratic and diversity lessons from American Commitments can be seen with particular clarity in one of the four pillars of the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes: personal and social responsibility. Within that quadrant, AAC&U has included civic knowledge and engagement, both local and global; diversity knowledge and intercultural competence; and ethical reasoning and action. Not surprisingly, these specific learning outcomes are described as being best achieved if “anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges.”5

Dubbed by Carol as “the orphan outcome,” personal and social responsibility was, she realized, verbally embraced but too often handed off to others instead of forming the bedrock of all learning across the campus and curriculum. So she invented Core Commitments: Educating Students for Personal and Social Responsibility, a new initiative funded by the Templeton Foundation and designed to make such learning more pervasive. It became the key project in my office for five years. Two of the five dimensions of personal and social responsibility entwine with dimensions of American Commitments. Genetically tied to the democratic emphasis in American Commitments is “contributing to a larger community: recognizing and acting on one’s responsibility to the educational community and the wider society, locally, nationally, and globally.” The second, also revealing its genetic relation to the diversity emphasis of the earlier project, is “taking seriously the perspectives of others: recognizing and acting on the obligation to inform one’s own judgment; engaging diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for learning, citizenship, and work.”6

Another of Carol’s major democratic initiatives, developed through her close relationship with US Undersecretary of Education Martha Kanter, led to the publication of A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, a major national report that was released at a White House event in 2012. Since I served as project director and writer of the report, channeling ideas from a multitude of people around the country, I was once again working in close partnership with Carol, as we had in American Commitments. Carol served on the national task force, attended almost all the national roundtable meetings, was the principal editor of my text, helped orchestrate the White House event, and found funding that enabled AAC&U to publish thousands of copies of the report so it could be widely and often freely distributed.

Crucible’s principal argument resonates with Carol’s earlier American Commitments initiative: “A socially cohesive and economically vibrant US democracy and a viable, just global community require informed, engaged, open-minded, and socially responsible people committed to the common good and practiced in ‘doing’ democracy.”7 The report proposes a new, twenty-first-century framework for civic learning and democratic engagement, asserting that students need, among other things, to acquire “historical and sociological understanding of several democratic movements”; to understand “one’s sources of identity and their influence on civic values, assumptions, and responsibilities to a wider public”; and to gain “knowledge of the diverse cultures, histories, values, and contestations that have shaped US and other world societies.”8 A Crucible Moment also asserts that civic problem solving in collaboration with diverse partners is the frontier of the democratic engagement across difference that promises to enhance student learning, address pressing public challenges, and reinvigorate our floundering US democracy.

In Carol’s final column for Liberal Education as AAC&U’s president, she evoked the links between American Commitments, A Crucible Moment, and the LEAP Challenge, which is focused on students’ Signature Work—integrative and substantive problem-solving opportunities that, by her own admission, were not first presented as necessarily tied to an earlier democratic vision. However, the hope she expresses in her final words to AAC&U members is that Signature Work will, in practice, be linked to “the public problems we need to solve as a diverse and globally engaged democracy.”9 Carol has bequeathed AAC&U the legacy that will make such a transformative commitment possible.  


1. Carol Geary Schneider, “Higher Education and the Contradictions of American Pluralism,” foreword to The Drama of Diversity and Democracy: Higher Education and American Commitments (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 1995), xiii.

2. Edgar Beckham, “Diversity at the Crossroads: Mapping Our Work in the Years Ahead,” in More Reasons for Hope: Diversity Matters in Higher Education (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008), 17.

3. Schneider, “Higher Education and the Contradictions of American Pluralism,” xiv.

4. Ibid., xiii.

5. For more information about the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative and
the LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes, see

6. Eric L. Dey, Cassie L. Barnhardt, Mary Antonaros, Molly C. Ott, and Matthew A. Holsapple, Civic Responsibility: What Is the Campus Climate for Learning? (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2009), 1.

7. National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2012), 13–14.

8. Ibid., 4.

9. Carol Geary Schneider, “Making Excellence Inclusive: Roots, Branches, Futures,” Liberal Education 102, no. 2 (2016): 5.

Caryn McTighe Musil is senior scholar and director of civic learning and democracy at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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